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The value of welcoming strangeness

by
02 September 2022

Acknowledging their own differences should impel Christians to be more open to others, says Graham Adams

istock

Christ Calling Zacchaeus (1936), a fresco by Vittorio Trainini in Chiesa di Cristo Re in Brescia, Italy

Christ Calling Zacchaeus (1936), a fresco by Vittorio Trainini in Chiesa di Cristo Re in Brescia, Italy

AT THE heart of faith, which is the condition of being shaken, one particular practice is crucial: xenophilia. Loving that which is other, that which is strange or foreign. It obviously stands in contrast to xenophobia, fearing the other and the strange; holding them at bay; cutting ourselves off, on the basis that “they” do not belong with “us”.

Xenophilia instead says: you are different and we love you for it. After all, we are different too — to them, but also among ourselves. It makes little sense to choose one single feature as the basis for cutting ourselves off from one another.

In fact, faith in Christ, as a response to the faithfulness of Christ, is all about loyalty to this very quest: the movement towards ever deeper neighbourliness, in solidarity with those silenced and oppressed by powers of domination, and befriending those who, in various respects, may be “strange” to us. So, we should work hard not to cut ourselves off.

As Marianne Moyaert argues, strangeness goes to the heart of Christian tradition. Because of Israel’s experience of being strangers in foreign lands, and because of God’s self-revelation to “us” in the face of the stranger, there is a moral responsibility to welcome the stranger. She suggests that this memory of oneself as stranger means that our identity is always partly strange to ourselves; that our identity is therefore “fragile”.

Our story is one of dynamism — and understanding ourselves as partly strange, or dislocated, and loved, helps us to love others who are also dislocated or strange.

But we need to notice something: when Christians speak of “we” in relation to Israel, Hebrew scriptures, or the “Old” Testament, as though Israel’s story is “our” story, and as though Christian assumptions about Jewish tradition allow us to treat it as our own, we collapse an important sense of strangeness.

Of course, Hebrew scriptures were the scriptures of Jesus, and we see them in him, but we need to be attentive to the tension; for just as Christian identity is both familiar and strange, even within itself, so our relationship with Jewish tradition is one of both closeness and strangeness.

The point about its strangeness is not to hold it at bay, but to affirm how our indebtedness to its ethic of welcome calls us to welcome it. Yet we have used its stories as weapons against it, treading heavily in its space with our historic power, as the Church, while also making ourselves the subjects of its narrative. We have occupied texts without due regard for their strangeness, their self-critical force, and have done so for colonising interests.

 

SO, YES, we are strangers in a foreign land, both in the sense that we should tread carefully when presuming to occupy other religious territory as though it is really our own, relearning how to examine ourselves in the light of such decolonial awakening; and in the sense that we should maintain a constructive vigilance regarding any who feel alien or strange in a broken world.

Receive them. Love them. Learn from them. Do not make them fit our own story, but hear theirs on its own terms. And see what happens. After all, as Jewish tradition also teaches us: God comes to us in the stranger, so we should seek to be alert to such persistent possibility.

It is an insight that Kosuke Koyama identified: that too often churches manage only to love that which is familiar, whereas our tradition beckons us to love that which is unfamiliar, even if that shakes our preconceptions or muddies our notions of purity.

God is on the move, unsettling our temples and urging us to build temporary shelters, putting the lure of truth-in-hand in its place, and trusting in the God of new things. Interestingly, “xenophilia” is just one way of binding together “xeno” and “philia”.

The Greek word for hospitality is actually philoxenia, in which the terms are reversed. This is instructive: that love of the other, or the strange, is the very same spirit that defines “hospitality” — not hospitality that merely makes space for the guest, so that the host may tell their own story, but hospitality that helps the guest to feel so at home that the guest shares their story.

In fact, even more than that: hospitality where the other is so loved that the distinction between host and guest is destabilised. Not that the guest is expected to pick up the responsibility of hosting, but their agency is valued if they want to play a more active part; their contributions are welcomed; and the power of the host is restrained in the cause of “Holy Anarchy”.

Of course, this is harder where the host owns and controls the space, whereas, if people meet in space owned neither by the one nor the other, this spirit of mutuality is more workable. But such space may be rare.

More often, we operate in space that belongs to someone, trying to welcome others into it, which is never easy to do well; and not just in terms of physical space, but intellectual or theological space, too. For example, when “theology” tries to “make room” for new voices, who decides what theology normally consists of and who decides whose voices to include?

The process never exists in a vacuum, but always has a history. To do this well, so much self-awareness is required, power needs to be reworked, and space and time need to be expanded. Anarchically.

 

BY WAY of a brief illustration, what of the “hospitality” in the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, or Zacchaeus and Jesus (Luke 19.1-10), and what sort of “salvation” is declared to have come?

istockRuth and Naomi, coloured engraving

Firstly, when it comes to religious diversity and the task of practising xenophilia, it is important not only to engage with texts and resources that are clearly relevant, but also to be attentive to other voices elsewhere. This story does not immediately seem to be concerned with religious diversity, but it has huge implications for it.

Secondly, of course no single text can resolve such complex issues — even though John 14.6 is often used as though it can. Rather, texts should be brought into dialogue with one another, to help name the different and contrasting impulses at work, and to see whether the knots that we struggle to disentangle can at least be illuminated more clearly, even if not quite “overcome”.

Thirdly, when we engage in this way, we will be left with loose threads, leading us to new questions. So, Zacchaeus and Jesus: who is the host to whom? At face value, Zacchaeus hosts Jesus, but Jesus basically invited himself; so it is a complex dynamic.

Both are men of some status, a tax collector and a wandering rabbi, though the tax collector’s status is ambiguous — on the one hand, backed up by the possibility of armed force, as and when needed, and clearly exercising economic power over others by exploiting them, but, on the other hand, still regarded socially and religiously as an outcast.

In fact, the status of Jesus is also complex: a religious teacher, but one who keeps touching and eating with the “wrong” people, so not exactly pure, even if he is more popular (among the multitudes, but not the leadership). They represent complex constituencies and have different kinds of power; so the “hospitality” is messy.

But clearly Jesus expresses a sort of xenophilia that others would not; his presence (at least) prompts Zacchaeus to promise that he will pay back those whom he has cheated. As such, Zacchaeus exercises power, at least willpower initially, which is yet to manifest itself in new action. As a consequence, Jesus declares: “Today salvation has come to this house!”

But what is going on there? Jesus expresses hospitality to Zacchaeus, through using his moral status to express love for the outsider, as a result of which the outsider creates space to receive Jesus’s generosity of spirit, and responds through expressing his intention to do economic justice.

This prompts Jesus’s declaration of salvation. Zacchaeus has not declared faith in Jesus, as such. Arguably, he is responding to the open-palm truth of Jesus’s generosity-of-spirit, but he does not name it or confess faith in the incarnation, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’s death on the cross, or the resurrection.

The cross hasn’t even come yet, but salvation has. In fact, Zacchaeus’s statement of faith is inconveniently thin on the ground. Even so, Jesus declares salvation. It may be because of Zacchaeus’s faith but, if it is, it is only implicit, not explicit — and Jesus’ explanation is also inconveniently thin, not stating that salvation only comes because of him or because of Zacchaeus’s faithful response.

Rather, the response — expressed here in terms of a commitment to doing economic justice, though only in intention, because it hasn’t happened yet — could be something that anyone might demonstrate, regardless of what or who prompts it.

 

ANOTHER tax collector, in another town, who had never heard of Jesus might also suddenly decide to pay back his victims. Assuming this is possible (and why wouldn’t it be?), might this also be the basis for salvation?

We cannot say from this text alone, but it makes no more sense to rule it out than it does to rule it in. What matters here, potentially, may be the transformation that is under way rather than the uniqueness of the cause.

And, as for this salvation, which also means healing, in the Greek, Zacchaeus is experiencing the saving or healing of his broken self, damaged relationships, distorted dynamics. It is more than personal; it is many-layered.

In other words, this impure Jew, a collaborator with the Roman occupiers and an exploiter of poor people, is named a son of Abraham not because of a particular form of truth-in-hand, though a particular ethical intention certainly plays a part — rather than simply “belief” or “faith as trust”.

His loyalty, his faithfulness, consists in a revised commitment. Metanoia. Repentance. Turning around. Changing his mind. It is an experience that many can recognise, in their own stories, whether or not it is prompted by a particular person, tradition or formalised revelation, and whether or not it takes a designated form, in a specific moment or over a period of time.

What we see here, in this brief episode, is that hospitality, with all its messy and complex dynamics, can be the basis for great change — and this can transcend the distinctions between religious communities, between religion and politics, religion and economics, faith and ethics, pure and impure.

But Christians often want to pin it all down, to determine the cause, the effect and the narrative, whereas the reality is messier, and salvation is beyond reduction; it has many sides, many faces, many dimensions, all of which — I suggest — reflect the impulse towards “Holy Anarchy”.

 

The Revd Dr Graham Adams is a Tutor in Mission Studies, World Christianity and Religious Diversity at Luther King Centre for Mission and Ministry.

This is an edited extract from his book Holy Anarchy: Dismantling domination, embodying community, loving strangeness, published by the SCM Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.99); 978-0-334-06190-8.

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